Getting married, having children, retiring. At many of life’s major transitions, you think you know what you’re getting into, only to find out that the experience is significantly different from what you were expecting. The same can be said about your career transitions. Here are some things to consider as you move through the various stages.
Undergrad to grad school. When you were an undergrad, you were given a recipe to follow in the lab, and everything was expected to work. Your classmates were doing the same experiment, so you could always ask them for help. The science was well understood; you just had to learn it. Grad school is far less scripted. You’re expected to design your own experiments and test areas of science where no one has gone before. If you get stuck, you’re less likely to find anyone who can help you, including your adviser. But what you lose in certainty, you will gain in independence.
Grad school to postdoc. In grad school, everyone knew that you were learning, so you were expected and encouraged to ask questions. When you’re a postdoc, you’re expected to arrive knowing how to conduct research independently. You may also be expected to supervise others or help run the lab, even if you haven’t had any formal training on how to do that. But with each problem that you solve, you will gain more confidence.
Postdoc to professor. Now that you know how to conduct scientific research, you have to learn how to teach, develop curricula, manage a research group, obtain funding, build an international reputation, and add many other professional responsibilities to your portfolio. Your confidence will grow into experience and expertise.
Academia to industry. Perhaps instead of staying in academia, you decide to accept a position in industry. You know you will be doing more practical, applied work. However, you may not be prepared for the increased pace, emphasis on teamwork, safety culture, and other differences between the two sectors. But the experience you gain will help you tackle any challenge that comes your way.
At every career stage, you can prepare for the surprises. Talk to people who have made the transition. Ask them what they do on a daily basis and what surprised them when they first started. Ask them what they wish they had known before they started. If they’ve been in that position for a while, ask them how their responsibilities have changed over time and where they see themselves going next.
At the same time, offer to talk with people considering the position you currently have about what that’s like. Not only will it make you feel good to help others, but it will force you to reflect on your current position, which will better prepare you for the transition you are about to make.
Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (www.acs.org/network-careers).